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How to manage a charity through a crisis

The Covid-19 pandemic is still very much with us and we are far from returning to ‘normal’. The safety of the 200+ people we support is paramount as well as the safety of the 150+ team members working with them. St Martins CEO Dr Jan Sheldon reflects on how to offer strong leadership through a crisis.

Type crisis leadership into your preferred search engine and there will be no shortage of results. What you will notice though is a shortage of information about crisis leadership in the voluntary sector.

Given the size of the sector (around 168,000 charities are registered by the Charity Commission), the contribution the sector makes both in terms of the numbers of people working in the sector (almost one million) and combined income (around £10.1billion) this lack of information is surprising.

Some might argue that the principles of crisis leadership are the same across the board and yes to some extent this is the case. However, the voluntary sector is a sector which is continually squeezed, add a crisis into the mix and many charities will cease to exist.

In order to ensure that this doesn’t happen charity boards and CEOs need to bring some aspects of crisis management to the forefront of their thinking.

Strong leadership

In a crisis people need strong, visible leadership. Team members need to be sure that someone has their back and cares about their welfare while they are often risking their lives on the front line. They need a steady flow of relevant information and they need to see their CEO. If not in person certainly by video on a very regular basis.

Team members should always feel appreciated but leaders should go the extra mile to demonstrate this during a time of crisis. Not just with the big messages of support but with the small gestures which will also mean a lot and show team members they are cared about.

That strong leadership should also be visible externally providing valuable reassurance to the public and key stakeholders that the charity is still doing great work albeit in a slightly different way. Never more so than at a time of crisis is strong leadership key to continued survival.


An international crisis, such as the one we’re living through at the moment will mean the service which many charities were delivering must change. Charities exist to deliver common good, not to deliver results for shareholders. So, the first question a charity needs to ask itself in a crisis situation is ‘is my service still needed?’ if the answer is yes (and it’s unlikely to be no) the next question has to be ‘how can I continue to deliver this service?’

Over the last few weeks we’ve seen many examples of innovation. Many charities have had to move from face to face support to telephone and video conferencing to support the people who need their services. Many have found themselves delivering essential goods to people who are self-isolating. This flexibility will make a difference, people will remember it for years to come and support for these charities will continue.

Effective Planning

Business Continuity plans are all well and good but a crisis needs a plan of action. That plan needs to be multi layered showing early steps in preparation and how a full blown crisis will be dealt with.

This type of planning, clearly set out and shared with all relevant parties will provide confidence in the charity. It will demonstrate to team members that much thought and planning has gone into how a crisis will be managed and how they will be supported during the crisis. It will also demonstrate to funders that the charity is one which is well managed and organised; one to support in the short, medium and longer term.

Horizon Scanning

A crisis is a short term event. At some point normal life will recommence. A charity with strong leadership will want to learn from the crisis, they will review what went well and how they could have improved the management of the crisis.

Importantly, they will also remember that when written in Chinese, the word crisis is composed of two characters, one represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.

A charity with strong leadership will not waste the opportunities which have arisen out of a crisis. These might be opportunities to embrace new ways of working or to make an even greater difference to the people they support.

Effective crisis management and strong leadership will help to ensure charities continue to grow and thrive and move from good to great.


Dr Jan Sheldon

Chief Executive

The article was featured in the June edition of ‘Care Agenda’

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